Leland Bell at Salander-OReilly
Sweet September, In Town and Out
Two sweet things happened between Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah.
Our resident foxes took a nonchalant trot, en famille,
down the length of the driveway. In full view. And forty years
of Leland Bells painting opened at Salander-OReilly.
Another full, satisfying view.
|Morning V, Leland Bell, 1985,
acrylic on canvas, 71 1/2 x 56 inches
OPENER is a deep and rare pleasure. It is an exhibition
for loverslovers of paint, of color, drawing, and the
subtle wonderments of influences carefully chosen and thoroughly
Forty years of Leland Bells paintings, from the 1950s
to his death in 1991, are here until the end of the month. If
you are not near enough to NYC to see it, call the gallery (212.879.6606)
and ask for a catalogue. The reproductions are delicious, the
essays worth having. And its free.
If you do not recognize his name, you are not alone. Bell was
a painters painter in the very best sense of the phrase.
Revered by a small circle of artists and students, he lived
his painting life askance of established trade routes. While
his reputation among other painters grew, he never achieved
either the critical or financial success of lesser but trendier
His work was difficult to classifyclassical in its reticence
but not in its forms or coloration; abstract in its rhythms
and hieratic stylizations yet determinedly representational.
This, at a time when representation was under heavy fire as
not quite creative enough. In the 50s, the figure
was an encumbrance to its own practitioners, an awkward guest
to be hastily introduced, handed a drink and steered past the
fast crowd on the dance floor.
Looking at Bells work today, it is hard for a contemporary
audience to recognize the audacity of it. The human figure,
as a viable subject for art, had been taking it on the chin
since the Armory Show of 1913. By the 1950s, the fundamental
concepts of figuration were under heavy fire from all directions.
But Bell held to an unfashionable truth: in the hands of a rightful
love, the figure is forever new, responsive and full of grace.
Side-stepping the post-war turn to abstraction with its rhetorical
pretensions, he staked everything on the enduring worth of the
figurative traditions he loved. He also made himself something
of an anomaly. The art market, like any other, feeds on identifiable
brands. Like the entertainment industry, it wants artists who
flatter its poses and who cultivate the preferred image. Bell
He had no inhibitions about criticizing the work of other painters.
And he spared little energy suffering the attention of collectors
he considered . . .well, fools. His long time dealer, Robert
Schoelkopf, sat in my Brooklyn studio and told mehalf-admiring,
half-exasperatedthat he had a hard time selling Bells
work. When he would send a potential client to Bells West
16th Street studio, the painter would instigate challenging
discussions that, invariably, left the visitor feeling antagonized
and grateful to leave.
|Figure Group with Bird, Leland
Bell, 1991, acrylic on canvas, 58 1/2 x 91 inches
That day in my studio, not long before his final illness, Schoelkopf
said an interesting thing. He admitted to a belief that every
serious contemporary figure painter had to work their way through
Balthus. At the time, I did not appreciate just how much that
conviction owed to Schoelkopfs admiration for Bell. But
now I do. Balthus himself is a summation of sources, each strain
a living idea. Here, on view together, are the fruits of Bells
deep romance with Balthus hieratic bedroom scenes, particularly
The Dream, 1956, The Moth, 1959, and the Cheshire-like
motif of the cat.
Bell paid a price for his choice of traditions and his commitment
to it. As Hilton Kramer writes in the New
York Observer: "Neither Clement Greenberg nor Harold
Rosenberg nor any of the critics nor collectors who followed
their lead, ever paid Bells work the slightest attention."
A founding member of the Studio School in 1964, Bell was a
popular lecturer and teacher. I had heard him speak on his beloved
Derain. It was the most mesmerizing talk on art I had ever attended.
Bar none. He was eloquent, passionate and thoroughly non-academic.
For all the prestige of his teaching experience (at Parsons
School of Design, Yale University, Kansas City Art Institute)
he was never donnish. He was a gifted, educatedlargely
self-educatedman who loved his craft and had the fortitude
to testify to his own loves.
Andrea Packard, director of Swathmores List gallery offers
a window onto his working habits: "Bell could not resist
reworking even his mosts ambitious and previously published
compositions. He repainted works after they were photographed
for exhibition announcements. He significantly repainted
Morning V after it was featured on the cover of Webers
There is an endearing echo here of Turner, known to have retouched
his paintings on the sneak while they were on exhibit. A little
more cadmium where the canvas seems to want it? Why not? His
loyalty was to the needs of the canvas, not of the audience
or the exhibitors.
Bells devotion to the process of creating art
is somethings quite distinct from concern for the manufacture
of a saleable dry good. Pleasure in the act of working is its
own Eden. He occupied himself with his own formal discoveries
and solutions to problems of his own making. Flattering a market
was not one of his worries.
Bell shunned "relevant" motifs, those fashionalbe
ones that are more the subject of oratory than of art. Instead,
he seized the motifs that moved him, returning again and again
to the same sources of emotion and formal challenge. He painted
his family, his cymbals and drums, household items, the world
in front of him. Blood and bone remained at the heart of his
I love the rhythmic pentimenti and undulating chalk lines that
mark his progress through an image. His working methods did
not yield a large output. Bell was driven more by a passion
for reworking, refining and improving previous work than in
turning out a product. Bell whited-out whole sections, redrawing
and repainting them. His pentimenti do not rise to the surface
to embarrass an otherwise polished piece. Rather, they are part
of the tapestry of the image, a record of decisions made and
abandoned in the service of bringing the painting closer to
the aim in view. They trace Bells capacity for taking
pains. And it is this capacity, more than any particular theme
or method, that links him to the traditions and masters that
Nicholas Fox Weber, in his 1986 monograph on Bell, gave the
reason for seeing this work: "His work can provide pleasures
of the highest order. It has power; it celebrates life itself;
it can nourish us enlessly with the beauty of painting as a
craft, and paintings as the relfector of the miracles of our
There is no finer reason for looking at any artist.
MY FOXES ARE A LOVELY COPPER COLOR,
flecked with burnt sienna, carmine and mars orange. Like new
pennies, they seem brighter in the first season or two. In the
older, larger onesmore wary neighbors than this young
female and her two pupsthe red is hushed, edging toward
brown. A cautious red ochre.
Coyotes are here, too. There were enough of them last year
to stir the local library to hold a town meeting on "How
to Live with Coyotes." (Hint: Dont let your cat out.)
They keep better hidden than foxes but the effects of their
presence are visible enough. With more canids about, fewer geese
pitched camp on the Duck Pond this summer. Goslings were missing
for the first time ever. Did they go the way of a fox lunch?
Or did mama geese simply aim farther south for the streams along
the Saw Mill and Bronx River Parkways?
Gone, too, is the heron family that had summered on the pond
for the past two years. Whatever were these regal, wet-land
birds doing on a small pond between two truck routes? Slumming
among workaday mallards and Canadian geese? No matter, I miss
them. I ache for one more glimpse of them flapping across the
water like prehistoric winged reptiles. Ungainly in the air,
they stood stately, in sacerdotal patience, at the foot of the
little waterfall that drains the pond. Waiting for bass.
Field mice have been summering indoors for the first time.
They usually stay outside until the first chill, sometime in
October. Not this year. Main dish grub for fox and coyote, they
have been hugging the baseboards in my kitchen all season. A
mouse a day for three days running! Laced with bait-bits, my
house is lethal shelter. Poor blundering beasties.
Ive only seen one coyote. On a snowy day last winter,
a young 'undun-colored, like weathered clapboard or the
bark of an old oak,was sledding on its haunches downhill
from an apple tree on the lower slope. It picked itself up at
the bottom of the rise, turned and trotted to the top, then
hunkered down and slid back to the bottom again. It was like
watching a child sledding on the nearest garbage can cover.
Late night howls are becoming more familiar. This is our main
cue that coyotes really are here. The sound was heart-stopping
at first hearing. It is not at all the way I had imagined it
from cowboy comics in childhood. ["Eiy-i-ooooo"] The cry rises
in a sharp swell that fades in mournful diminuendo, a kind of
keening. It could be the wail of a animal who has found her
whelp murdered. A female sound. The lamentation of Rachel, inconsolable
and beneath my own window.
I love coming home to these sights and nature-noises after
a day in the studio. Isabel Bishop commuted all of her adult
life from one of the Hudson River towns to a studio on 14th
Street. I used to wonder why she bothered. Why not just stay
in Union Square and save the train time? Now I know.
©2002 Maureen Mullarkey